Although the move to telework has presented challenges, agency officials told senators at a hearing emphasized the benefits in terms of hiring and productivity.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a potential "paradigm shift" in federal employment, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said at a Nov. 18 hearing. The dramatic expansion of telework could enable increased recruitment employees who do not live in the Washington D.C. metro area and complete their work remotely.
This dynamic, if continued after the pandemic, could result in savings from a shrinking real estate footprint for Capitol-based federal agencies and from reducing the number of feds covered by the Washington, D.C. area's locality pay, according to Lankford, who chairs the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
The consideration of remote work policies at the Department of Transportation started before the pandemic began, said Keith Washington, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration at the Department of Transportation. This is in part because of challenges they have had in recruiting and retaining human resources and acquisition specialists.
"We're hoping as a result of a lot of our lessons learned from the health emergency that managers will be more receptive," Washington said. "We're compiling a lot of the data, assessing metrics to build that business case to have a more rigorous remote work policy, but I think a lot of it is culture change."
The Department of Labor has also expanded hiring pools outside of the greater D.C> area through the use of remote work. The department is "routinely" posting jobs that are available in "all locations," said Sydney Rose, the Chief Human Capital Officer at the Labor Department.
"It was a paradigm shift for some of our managers and supervisors, who've now had their eureka moment like 'This is working really well. Now suddenly I've got an applicant pool that is just the entire United States, not just the Washington D.C. metro area,'" Rose said.
Since the pandemic started, the Labor Department has onboarded over 1,000 new employees virtually, she said. Many processes that were formerly paper-based are now virtual, such as signatures, she said. The oath of office for new employees also been conducted virtually, and these changes will most likely continue, she said.
"We have gotten extremely positive feedback from all of the users," she said.
Office of Personnel Management data for federal telework lags behind the pandemic, but the officials at the hearing reported some statistics on the pandemic's impact on remote work. At Labor, telework surged from 68% in the first quarter of 2020 to 94% in the second quarter. At the Department of Transportation, telework participation doubled with just under 15,000 participating in telework in February 2020 and more than 30,000 telework in March. The Social Security Administration closed offices to the public on March 17 and the agency transitioned more than 90% of its workforce to telework.
As far as productivity goes, at the Department of Transportation, productivity has actually increased in the remote environment, Washington said. The Department of Labor has not seen an appreciable decrease in productivity, Rose said.
Rather than combatting sagging productivity, the bigger shift in transitioning to telework could actually be in how managers conceptualize their job, said Michelle Rosenberg, the acting director on the Strategic Issues Team at the Government Accountability Office.
"Telework requires a different way of managing staff," she said. "As opposed to managing by observation, you need to manage by results."
One expert told FCW that managerial buy-in is one of the biggest hurdles.
"One of the biggest barriers to remote work has been managers, frankly, not trusting their employees to work untethered," Kate Lister, the president of Global Workforce Analytics, a research and consulting firm focusing on telework, workplace flexibility and alternative workplace strategies, told FCW in an interview.
"Research has shown that one of the biggest predictors of whether or not a manager supports remote work is whether or not they've done it themselves," she said, and since March, the pandemic has forced many federal government managers to try remote work out of necessity.
The last major legislation on federal teleworking – the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 - was passed a decade ago. It set baseline standards for teleworking. Lankford and subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) along with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) are looking to update telework legislation with a bill that requires agencies to allow all employees eligible for teleworking to do so throughout the duration of the pandemic, and to establish which other currently non-eligible employees could be made eligible.